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Hidden Hunger: Food Insecurity among Children with Incarcerated Parents

Close up photo of two linked hands, one reaching from behind bars in a correctional facility

Food insecurity is a pervasive and pressing public health issue. In 2021, more than 5 million U.S. children lived in food insecure households. This is more than the number of children who have asthma, a leading chronic childhood disease. 

When children are food insecure, they do not have consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life. When children do not get enough to eat, they may face heightened difficulties in school and social situations, developmental delays, and health concerns. Yet, child food insecurity is unequally distributed across the nation. Certain subgroups, such as Black and Latino children and those in single-parent families, are more likely to face childhood hunger than their peers. Another group often overlooked in conversations about food insecurity, despite being disproportionally affected, is children with parents in jail or prison.

The Impact of Parental Incarceration

Parental incarceration is a far-reaching social problem in the United States. The most recent available data suggest that 1.5 million children currently have a parent in state or federal prison, with presumably many more having parents incarcerated in local jails, contributing to estimates that 1 in 14 children will have a parent incarcerated at some point during childhood. Again, certain subgroups, including Black, poor, and rural children, are more likely to experience parental incarceration. Children with incarcerated parents are also at increased risk for academic and social problems, as well as mental, behavioral, and physical health challenges. In addition to these disadvantages, parental incarceration can have detrimental economic impacts on families, often leading to reduced income and increased financial strain. This, in turn, can drastically limit access to sufficient food sources for children left separated from their incarcerated parents.

Although this is an emerging area of study, my recent research suggests that having a more detailed understanding of food insecurity among children and families impacted by parental incarceration can help inform and improve major food-related programs, such as SNAP. 

But just how prevalent is food insecurity for children with incarcerated parents? Our team of public health researchers explored the intersection of these two obstacles to children’s health and well-being.

The Intersection of Food Insecurity and Parental Incarceration

Using data from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, our study found that 17% of Minnesota youth had experienced parental incarceration (2% currently and 15% in the past), and 4% were food insecure within the past month (i.e., having to skip meals because their family did not have enough money to buy food). Our findings clearly show that children are much more likely to be food insecure while their parents are incarcerated. Nearly 1 in 5 youth with currently incarcerated parents experienced recent food insecurity, a rate that is 7.5 times higher than for peers who never experienced parental incarceration. 

Even for youth with formerly incarcerated parents, rates of food insecurity are four times higher than for peers who never experienced parental incarceration. These findings raise important questions about the underlying mechanisms of parental incarceration that may heighten children’s risk for food insecurity.

Other researchers have also investigated the link between incarceration and food insecurity for households with children above and beyond factors like race and poverty. A study by Cox and Wallace found that parental incarceration increases the likelihood of household food insecurity by at least 4 percentage points. Follow-up work by Turney highlighted the added vulnerability for children who lived with their parent before incarceration. In another recent statewide study of parental incarceration and food insecurity in Minnesota, my research found that youth who lived with their parent at the time they went to jail or prison experienced food insecurity at a rate that was 1.5 times greater than for peers who did not.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a U.S. federal program designed to curb hunger and improve nutrition for low-income individuals and families. The link between incarceration and food insecurity, especially for co-residential children in low-income households, may be partly attributed to changes in this food-related assistance upon parents’ incarceration. In many states, SNAP benefits for the household are terminated if the primary beneficiary becomes incarcerated even if children depend on those benefits, leading to an abrupt reduction in food access. Even if the incarcerated parent is not the primary beneficiary, shifts in household structure can decrease benefits, making families more susceptible to food insecurity. Following release, the parent may be eligible for SNAP benefits again, but some states impose strict conditions or permanent bans for certain offenses, which on top of the already cumbersome and time-consuming re-application process can create ongoing barriers to benefit access.

Food insecurity is a prominent consequence of parental incarceration that is not readily mitigated by social safety net programs. The cumulative disadvantage of these adversities is an urgent child health concern with potentially long-lasting implications. I recently worked with a team of health equity researchers to analyze data from Project EAT. We found that those who experienced parental incarceration during childhood were nearly 3 times more likely to be food insecure themselves as adults than their peers who had not experienced parental incarceration, and receiving SNAP did not offset this risk. These intergenerational ramifications can contribute to a reduction in consumption of nutritious food during adolescence, as noted in previous research, and an increase in disordered eating during adulthood.

Food Insecurity is an Urgent Child Health Concern

Addressing child food insecurity is vital to promoting healthy development, learning, and long-term well-being. Yet, improving food security in the context of parental incarceration requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the unique challenges faced by families. Policy reforms can facilitate the temporary transfer of SNAP benefits to designated caregivers and streamline the re-enrollment process after release. Meanwhile, expanding funding for community programs that increase food access can better meet families’ immediate food-related needs. By addressing these issues through collaborative efforts, we can better achieve child food security in cases of parental incarceration and provide a healthier future for our nation’s children.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Luke Muentner (Corrections and Reentry Researcher) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.